Keith Thomas was one of a number of historians who saw possibilities in the coming together of history and the social sciences. Believing that both were concerned with similar subject matter, he saw no reason why history should remain aloof from social sciences, and pressed for a new type of history, drawing upon these apparently more precise disciplines, his personal preference being anthropology.Undoubtedly there are lessons which the historian can learn from such disciplines: “Anthropology has opened historians’ eyes to the significance of social habits, the mixture of the universal and relative which goes to make up the ways in which people accustom themselves to living in groups.
.. Provided the instruction received is turned to historical use, provided it is used to consider and explain past change in the human past, these borrowings can be nothing but fruitful.” However, history is an autonomous discipline with its own rules, and anthropological findings cannot be simply transferred as ‘the truth’ into the past without proper historical cross-examination. Conclusions derived from anthropological study may indeed be transferable to the past, but are totally invalid without genuine historical evidence to confirm them. The case for using the findings of social science to help direct the line of historical investigation is a strong one.The sources from which the historian attempts to reconstruct the past are frequently written documents which shed light on what the people of the past thought was happening, but not necessarily what was actually happening.
Using written sources alone, “How can one detect the gap (if one exists) between a man’s motives and his rationalisation of these motives, and, further, the ideological or doctrinal gloss which he places upon these rationalisations?” Anthropology, concerned with uncovering the genuine reasons behind social relationships, can clearly make some suggestions. “The historian has so often to rely upon his imagination to trace links or deduce consequences which the anthropologist can see before his eyes. Is it too much to suppose that the historian who is familiar with the findings of the anthropologist is in a better position to ask intelligent questions of his material and more likely to come up with intelligent answers?” The witchcraft chapters of Religion and the Decline of Magic are undoubtedly informed by the author’s interest in anthropology, whether in general conclusions, such as that witch beliefs served as a means for limiting unsociable behaviour, or in more particular assertions, for example that the witch usually knew the accuser.
Both ideas would be familiar to the anthropologist, but certainly the former one could only be discovered by a historian through a considerable leap of imagination from sources which tend to record events and people’s rationalisations, rather than the true underlying motivations.Clearly, anthropological case studies cannot be used as simple analogies for societies studied in history. The logic that ‘X is true in a certain African village and so is probably true for seventeenth century English villages’ is inadmissible, even when there is a lack of any alternative ‘conventional’ evidence: X’s truthfulness in England has to remain a mystery in this case. “[A historian’s] anthropological training prompts him to ask many interesting questions, and often..
.these are questions which historians have neglected to ask. It does not, however, equip him to answer these questions, except in so far as he submits them to more orthodox tests of historical evidence. ” Not only does the particular nature of anthropological fieldwork make generalisations on the basis of the example of a handful of villages dangerous, but the differences between an African village and a seventeenth century English village frequently outweigh any similarities.The two might share elements such as size and mode of production, but the English village is shaped by many elements which differ from the African case, such as its religious system, a different seasonal cycle, and having fewer lions to contend with.
Occasionally, the differences are so great that even analogy qualified by proper historical research become worthless: “Study of a more historical kind at once reveals such enormous differences in circumstances and situations that the value of such comparisons – even their capacity to suggest new questions and insights – becomes very problematical. “Fortunately, Thomas did not use simple analogy in Religion and the Decline of Magic, despite his 1963 opinion that, “…
anthropological studies of primitive mentality could provide valuable reinforcement for historians confronted by a paucity [or even an absence?? ] of evidence for the mental life of the lower reaches of the distant society which they are studying. ” The first two of the witchcraft chapters do not draw directly upon individual anthropological surveys, taking a more conventional line of using documents and other works of history (although some of the conclusions may owe something to anthropology).When references to anthropological works do appear (and nowhere are they overwhelmingly numerous), they are always backed up through reference to documentary evidence. When, in chapter 16, Thomas asserts that, “Like other primitive peoples, contemporaries believed that curses worked only if the party who uttered them had been unjustly treated,” he instantly underlines this point with documentary evidence from a Puritan preacher, John Selden, and William Shenstone.